Using Plays in the Classroom. Part 1: Introduction

This article is another installment in our new Helping Superheroes Teach series. The aim of this new series is to offer teachers helpful strategies and practical tips they can implement in their classrooms. It is also Part 1 of a series on using plays in the classroom.

   
By Dr. Frances Boyd and Christopher W. Collins

Plays are a rich language-learning resource, yet they are underutilized in curricula for English language learning. In this series of blog posts, we will investigate what plays are, why they are beneficial for language learning, and how they might be used to practice the four skills (reading, writing, listening, and speaking), practice grammar and vocabulary in context, develop cultural knowledge, and practice critical thinking. We will also discuss how both teachers and students respond to using plays in the classroom, and how to choose plays for language-learning purposes.

We are lecturers in the American Language Program (ALP), Columbia University’s ESL program at the School of Professional Studies; neither of us has a background in theater, but over the years, both of us have come to see the many benefits of using this genre in the classroom.

What is a play?

A dramatic work for the stage: A play is a story told through dialogue, interaction, and movement that needs to be completed by a performance, for example, Children of a Lesser God by Mark Medoff (1986 film; 2018 Broadway revival). However, this performance need not be on the stage; a film adaptation, such as Tracy Letts’s August: Osage, County (2013 film), John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation (1993 film), Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie (1987 film), or William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker (1962 film) can be equally if not more rewarding than a work adapted for the stage.

A crucible of culture: The playwright’s skill is to distill language and experience of a specific time and place, focusing on the family, for example. In the plot, character, and setting we find cultural values that can be extrapolated and highlighted to deepen student understanding.

What is an American play?

A play written by an American, set in the United States, and engaged with themes crucial to understanding the U.S.: Because we teach in the U.S., our students want to learn about the culture they are studying in. Each work provides a snapshot of a time and place, with characters acting within a particular socio-historical context. Such rich, evocative settings can provide an important area of research for students, allowing them to develop their understanding of the culture and history that shapes individuals in the U.S. The works often engage with complex and weighty themes: race, class, gender, disability. While these themes may be universal, the way that they are part of the U.S. and its culture are particular and distinct.

What themes do American plays deal with?

Conflicts within families, between individuals, within individuals: These are intensely personal stories unfolding with dramatic emotion before our very eyes. The great American playwright Arthur Miller observed* that the best playwrights have something in common: “They are all burning with some anger with the way the world is … Between the lines it’s exploding.”

While humor may be present, plays more often deal with psychologically fraught, uncomfortable subjects. The family is usually at the core of a play, so we find themes such as the impact of history on families and individuals, parents’ disappointment with adult children, what children owe their parents, and what parents owe their children.

Other themes in the American canon include addiction, betrayal, dishonesty, downward mobility, gender identity, greed, jealousy, mental illness, and religious identity. Given the mature nature of these themes, most plays suit young adult and adult students.

The layers of complexity in a play often touch on themes that can be deeply and sometimes surprisingly meaningful to learners. Still, these themes are difficult to deal with directly in a classroom setting. However, in a play, students can recognize, feel, and identify with the dramatic, emotional struggle of members of a family. Such an experience brings them closer to the target culture.

Why are plays underutilized in language-learning curricula?

 Unfamiliar, incomplete, unsupported with materials: Teachers may be unfamiliar with accessible plays in the American canon or may feel pedagogically underprepared for working with them. Or teachers may feel they are being called upon to teach literature. In this series of blog posts, we will demonstrate a language-centered approach to plays that builds on the same skills teachers apply to many kinds of content. At the same time, instructors can see exploring a new resource as an opportunity for professional development, an opportunity to be a “fellow traveler” with students on the path to learning.

Plays are “incomplete” in the sense that a film or stage performance is essential to the experience. Yet the leap “from page to stage” offers a special opportunity for student engagement, collaboration, and critical thinking. In outsourcing the act of completion, the playwright invites the reader/viewer to step into the shoes of a film or stage director and consider a number of questions: What choices would you make in staging this work? What choices has the director made? Why? How does the stagecraft—lighting, sound, costuming, setting, and so on—enhance or detract from the viewer’s experience? How does casting match or conflict with your own imagined version?

As most plays are unsupported with materials, they may require more work up front to adapt for language learning. Yet you and your colleagues can start small. One play per semester is what we recommend, for high-intermediate (CEFR B1–B2) and advanced (CEFR B2–C2) learners. Over time, you can develop an in-house repertoire of works at different levels by a variety of playwrights. In our experience, our response and our materials may evolve, but quality plays themselves don’t go out of date.

In the American Language Program, we have been collaborating on materials production for many years. We have developed our language-centered approach through the experience of teaching and learning, and we continue to hone the design of our activities, to introduce plays to new teachers, and to come back to teach some of the same plays over and over with new insights and ideas.

*Charlie Rose (Television show). (1992, July 3). Arthur Miller [Video file]. Retrieved from https://charlierose.com/videos/14696

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our series: Preparing the Play


Dr. Frances Boyd has been teaching students and developing teachers for over 30 years in the U.S. and abroad, in China, Columbia, Kyrgyzstan, and Mexico. She serves on the faculty of Columbia University’s American Language Program in the School of Professional Studies, where she has collaborated on the American Play Project for nearly all of those years. She is co-editor of the academic book series NorthStar, author of Making Business Decisions –both published by Pearson, and a frequent featured speaker at international ELT conferences. Boyd holds the BA from Oberlin College, the MA from the University of Wisconsin, and the Ed.D. from Teachers College, Columbia University.

Christopher W. Collins is a lecturer in the American Language Program (ALP) at the Columbia University School of Professional Studies, where he also co-chairs the annual ALP Winter Conference, and he has also taught in the Czech Republic and in Japan. He completed his M.A. in TESOL at The New School, with a concentration in Curriculum Development.

The Power of a Good Story: Using Stories in the Classroom

This article is another installment in our new Helping Superheroes Teach series. The aim of this new series is to offer teachers helpful strategies and practical tips they can implement in their classrooms. In our eyes, teachers are superheroes, and we recognize them for their commitment to improving students’ lives. We hope you find these tips and suggestions helpful. And if you have ideas you would like to share with other teachers, please let us know. We would love to publish your article on our platform. You can reach out to us at esl_marketing@pearson.com

 By Jeremy Schaar

In 2007, I saw first-hand how powerful stories are for getting students excited about learning English.

I was teaching at a language academy in Chicago. It wasn’t a great school. There were never enough working CD players, and we bled each board marker dry. The teachers and students all knew it was a temporary gig/school until they could figure out something better. Still, we had fun like you have fun at a train station or a summer camp. The impermanence of it all was freeing, and the diversity of people was exciting.

One of my favorite students was an environmental lawyer from Poland who was a bartender in Chicago. He was irate when I met him. He’d signed up for Business English only to find himself in my Short Stories class. (They were both in a rotation of “advanced” classes, but never at the same time.) Business English was something useful for him. Short Stories was a waste of his time.

He showed up late and said he would leave early. (He had to work.) Then something remarkable happened. We read Can-Can by Arturo Vivante. In it, a man regrets setting up a rendezvous with a lover. The story is just a page or two long, but it’s full of rich material. The class talked about the language, the literary devices, and the themes. Then we started debating things, and while I can’t remember the Polish lawyer’s points, I’ll never forget the image of him standing halfway out the door, his arm waving in the air, shouting one last point about infidelity and marriage before he left to go to work… and then reappearing a minute later to make his last last point. He was hooked.

Pearson’s A World of Fiction, features “Can-Can” by Arturo Vivante and 15 other great short stories

In the end, we had a great class. Every lesson was full of passionate debates built around powerful stories.

I learned how great stories are for motivating the unenthusiastic student.

Now, let’s look at four more uses of stories as well as some good activities to do with stories.

Stories are a great jumping off point for a mixed-level classroom

One of the great uses of stories is to solve the problem of a mixed-level classroom. You start with the story and then let everyone fly as high as they can. The hardest part is finding the right story. You’ll want something that’s full of interesting images and ideas but not too hard to explain. Take 20-30 minutes to help everyone understand the story. Then do activities that work across levels.

Consider using Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken. There’s some hard language in it, but it’s short, so you can explain the ideas to students within 30 minutes. If students really struggle, encourage them to read a translation online.

Once the students have a basic understanding, the sky is the limit. Here are some activities you can use to deepen their understanding. You can do one activity as a class or let each student choose one they’d like to try.

Comprehension Building Activities:

  • Read the story to each other out loud, compare/contrast intonation
  • Retell the story to each other in their own words
  • Illustrate or act out the story
  • Write what happened just before or just after the story
  • Cut up the story into pieces, then reassemble the pieces from memory
  • Circle any new words, then find two synonyms for each new word

After your students have a deeper understanding, consider going further with these critical thinking activities.

Critical Thinking Activities:

  • Debate the meaning of ambiguous language/ideas
  • Guess why the author made some choices (e.g. why a wood and not a river?)
  • Find a story with a similar theme (in any language), compare/contrast the stories

Stories help you address challenging issues

There are any number of important issues we might like to address in the classroom. Issues like racism, sexism, and native speaker bias are important, but we can think more broadly. Consider family issues like disciplining children or an overbearing in-law. Or how about issues around making a career change, dealing with an illness, or breaking bad news?

They’re all hard to bring up. They are also a big part of our students’ lives, and we do them a disservice when we ignore them altogether. Stories let us all live in the challenging area for a minute without being overbearing or too personal. Here are some activities you can try after reading a story featuring a challenging or sensitive subject.

Sensitive Subject Activities

  • Identify empowering language. Our students often lack the language they need to stand up for themselves, but they can find it in stories. Have them circle useful language and describe situations they might use it.
  • Role-play the issue. It’s not nice to push students to talk about their own challenging issues, but role plays let everyone explore the issues in a detached way.
  • Describe how friends and family would react to the story. What would your friends back home think? How about your grandma? Why?

Stories show off the interconnected nature of language

We often think of language in terms of isolated things like definitions, grammar rules, and sounds. Language, however, is as much about the connections between things as the things themselves. For example, a word isn’t just its definition, but also all the words and grammar and ideas we associate with it. From this perspective, stories are a goldmine of connections. They show how the isolated bits add up to something greater than the sum of the parts.

Activities for Seeing Connections in Language

  • Find the words that go with other words. Identify some words that are repeated several times in the story. Then have the students list the words that come before and after those keywords.
  • Learn the importance of verb tense. Choose a new primary verb tense for the story and have the students list all the things they’d have to change to make it work.
  • Tell similar stories. Choose the ten most important words from the story. Then ask the students to imagine other stories they could tell with those same words.

Stories let everyone have some fun!

Finally, sometimes a story is just plain fun. That’s reason enough to share it with your students. Here are a few more fun activities you can do with your students using stories.

Fun Story Activities

  • Watch the movie! Graded readers especially are often based on movies. Enjoy the story. Then enjoy the movie.
  • Create a talk show with the characters. Imagine the characters are on a talk show. One student can be the host. The other students can be characters from the story.
  • Make a soundtrack. Ask each student to find and present a song that matches the story. Then make a playlist the students can keep forever.

* * * * *
Finding good stories is a challenge. Consider using these resources.

Pearson Graded Readers
A World of Fiction
True Stories
Classic Short Stories
Poetry in Voice

From classic stories to blockbuster film titles, our huge range of graded Readers features some of the world’s best-loved authors and the greatest stories ever told.


Jeremy Schaar is an English teacher who has bounced around the globe teaching and learning. He has taught in Russia, the United States, and South Korea. He has also developed content for colleges, websites, and textbook publishers. He is passionate about education in general and especially Business English, writing skills, and online learning. Follow Jeremy on Twitter @jeremyschaar

When things go wrong…

This article is the first one in our new Helping Superheroes Teach series. The aim of this new series is to offer teachers helpful strategies and practical tips they can implement in their classrooms. In our eyes, teachers are superheroes, and we recognize them for their commitment to improving students’ lives. We hope you find these tips and suggestions helpful. And if you have ideas you would like to share with other teachers, please let us know. We would love to publish your article on our platform. You can reach out to us at esl_marketing@pearson.com.

 When things go wrong…

  By Jeremy Schaar

“OK, everybody, open your books to page 72. It’s Unit 3, Lesson 2 …”
“But Teacher, we did that already.”
“We what? Well, hmm …”

Sometimes things don’t go right for teachers. You prepare a lesson, but your students have already done it in a previous class. You forget the copies you made. The Wi-Fi is down. There are no markers (in the whole building!). Your lesson needs at least four students, but only one shows up. Now you need to think fast!

Things will go wrong, so it’s best to get ready. Here are seven activities you can do when your plans don’t work out.

Talking Time

This 30-minute activity has a 10-minute setup, a 15-minute discussion, and a 5-minute conclusion. Start by choosing a topic. It can be a theme you’d like to review or just something the students will enjoy discussing. In the setup, ask your students to suggest discussion questions for the topic. Write all their discussion questions on the board. (If you have a yes/no question, always make sure to add why? after it.) Then, in pairs, the students should ask each other the questions for 5 to 10 minutes. Switch pairs once or twice. Finally, discuss the questions as a whole class.

Find the Best Picture

Choose a vocab word you’ve studied recently. All the students should search for an image of that word on their phone or tablet. Some words will be easy, but the students will have to be creative for others. They each show the class the image they found and say something about why they chose it. Then the class votes on who found the best image of the word. Repeat as many times as you’d like, with the winner for one word choosing the next target word.

Simple Reading

Do you have a favorite reading you’ve done with students? A perfect news article or a poem that gets everyone talking? Whatever it is, if it worked well once, it’ll work well again. So, make a bunch of copies of it and always carry them around with you. If you want to beef it up, write ten pre-reading discussion questions, ten comprehension questions, and ten questions for a follow-up discussion. Doing a little preparation work now will ensure you’re ready to save the day later.

Tell Your Best Story

Everyone has a few stories they love to tell. (My favorite is the time a police officer stopped me for taking pictures in the Moscow subway …). We repeat these stories for new friends and new classes so many times that it’s almost like we’re performing. You can lean into this idea by developing an activity around your best anecdote.

Save your best story for the day you need it. Then tell your students that you’re going to tell them a story, and that they should listen carefully. After you tell your story, ask your students to: (1) ask you one follow-up question each, (2) retell the story to their partners, and (3) think of a good story to tell their partners.

Tell a Riddle

Learn a few riddles. Then tell your students the riddles and have them discuss in pairs. Here’s a good one:

There’s one light in the attic and three light switches in the basement. You’re in the basement. You can only go up to the attic one time. How can you know which switch turns the light on?

(See the end of this post for the answer.)

Write a Sentence, Change Something

Write a theme at the top of the board or on a piece of paper. Ask a student to write a sentence about that theme. Then ask another student to change something in the sentence. For example, if the theme is “work” and the first student writes I work every day., then the next student might write I work every day but Sunday. or He works every day. Students can change or add anything they like. Then ask another student to come to the board and change something.

Once the class gets the hang of the activity, each student can write a sentence on a piece of paper and pass it around the class.

Note: If you have just one student, take turns changing something in the sentence. First the student changes something, then you change something, and so on.

Take a Walk, Have a Talk

This works best when just one student shows up and you’re not sure what to do. It can be tough to fill the time, but there’s something about walking that makes conversations flow. Rather than trying to fight through a lesson that was meant for a class, suggest to your student that you stroll around the area. From a practical point of view, your student will get valuable practice with small talk in a memorable setting.

* * * * *

(Answer to the riddle: Turn on the first switch. Wait 5 minutes. Turn it off. Then turn on the second switch and go upstairs. If the light is off but hot to the touch, it’s the first switch. If the light is on, it’s the second switch. If the light is off and cool, it’s the third switch.)


Jeremy Schaar is an English teacher who has bounced around the globe teaching and learning. He has taught in Russia, the United States, and South Korea. He has also developed content for colleges, websites, and textbook publishers. He is passionate about education in general and especially Business English, writing skills, and online learning. Follow Jeremy on Twitter @jeremyschaar